Aymee went very still when Vardan entered the hall. There were yards between them, but she went skeleton-stiff, fleshless at the sight of him. Vardan slowed, hovered in the doorway for half a moment. He hadn’t expect any kind of fear when he arrived. He looked down, counting out the floor stones between them. Slowly, he approached.
Her hands knotted in her skirts, and the rich, blue cloth whispered in complaint.
At a respectful distance, Vardan stopped. It felt strange. Once, he would have walked right up beside her, shoulders almost touching. He might have just smiled, and it would have been enough of a greeting for them. Now, he looked down again, bowed low. “My lady,” he said.
Aymee still didn’t move. “Vardan?” she whispered. “How are you here?”
She had the twins with her.
Kadelyn sat in the window seat, brown hair turned to a sheet of amber in the sunlight. Her feet were tucked beneath her, hidden in the puff of her red skirt. There was a book in her lap, and one finger marked her place on the line. But she was watching her mother now, round face turned away from the window in shadow so he couldn’t read much in her expression.
Brance, crouched on the floor beside her, back leaned against the wall. He had one hand buried in the scruff at the Old Hound’s neck. Curious, and suspicious, he met Vardan’s eye.
Old Hound had gotten older, Vardan noted, gray fur spread all the way up his nose. The twins were nearly twelve now. Brance’s shoulders had already started to widen and square out, like his father’s. Kadelyn had a quickness to her look that she hadn’t had before. But both of them looked like they remembered him.
Vardan wondered if they were the reason Aymee had frozen as she had. Or if she was afraid for herself.
He looked back to her. “I’ve been released, my lady,” he told her. “On your husband’s orders.”
Aymee blinked. She seemed to search for a word. Then, she asked, “Why?”
Vardan smiled weakly. “He said he could use me.”
Her mouth twisted in response, but it was nothing so kind as a smile. “And you’ve finally decided you’ll allow yourself to be used?”
“Yes,” Vardan told her.
She fell silent.
Something rustled behind her skirts again. A little brown head leaned toward her leg, pushing her skirts out of the way, and a round, pale face peered warily out at Vardan. She was barely three, steady on her feet, but her brown eyes still over-large. Aymee was holding the little girl’s hand, not the cloth, Vardan realized.
He knew that she’d had another daughter, but he’d forgotten. He looked down again.
“Why are you here?” Aymee asked, sharp.
“Aymee,” Vardan said, too fast. But he met her eye, and she flinched, but didn’t look away. “I thought he would have told you. I’m not here to hurt anyone.”
Aymee hesitated. “Really?” she said, tone lowered in disbelief.
“Thrones and crowns have been won in a fight before,” he told her. “And the world spun on.”
She said nothing.
“I’m through fighting,” he told her.
Aymee looked younger as she looked at him, finally looked as young as she was supposed to be. Her hair curled over her shoulder. Her dress hung elegantly off her shoulders and hip. Her eyes were round as she looked up at him. “So, I’m supposed to believe that you’ve forgiven me?” she murmured. “For everything I did?”
“I have,” Vardan said.
And she went quiet again. She blinked, too much, and held his gaze. He thought she might shake her head at him, unbelieving, not knowing how a woman who had murdered a sister could be forgiven, after taking everything her sister owned. Not knowing how he could forgive her for killing his best friend either, who had sat beside her sister, and loved them both.
And Vardan wasn’t sure how he’d done it either. He didn’t understand how he could forget the bite and burn of it when he looked at her, or how he could stand in front of her and remember old days of playing cards across a table from her more clearly than the point of a sword she once held to his chest.
But he did.
And he would rather see her smile, like she used to, than touch a sword to her in return.